Thursday 14th April 2022
There’s a lovely hamlet in Essex called Good Easter.
Located in rural Essex between Chelmsford and Braintree it just happens to fall into one of the two areas covered by Essex County Council’s brand new DigiGo branded DRT scheme which began this month and was officially launched yesterday.
It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss to have both a seasonal outing and check out another new DRT operation set up thanks to funding from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund.
Essex received two awards from the Fund. Central Essex, which includes Good Easter (and another hamlet called High Easter) got £1,493,000 while an area called South Braintree gained £1,082,000. Both areas are very rural with minimal or no bus provision.
Although both schemes are portrayed as separate entities when passengers book with separate maps and journeys are restricted to one or the other area the overall DigiGo operation is run in house by the County Council as one unit utilising six minibuses and employing 22 drivers.
The number of drivers may appear high but the hours of operation are quite extensive being 07:00 to 22:00 and daily too. I’ve not come across a DRT scheme offering such extended hours so far, so Essex are certainly trail blazing extensive coverage.
Essex are also trail blazing electric/battery minibuses on DigiGo. The only other DRT scheme using electric vehicles is in East Leeds and branded ‘Flexibus’, as regular readers may recall. The vehicles used on DigiGo are manufactured by SAIC, the largest automotive company in China and the name behind the LDV brand now heavily into light commercial vehicles running as either EV, hybrid or hydrogen. The range of the six LDVs being used is not huge at about 120 miles meaning at least one mid-shift charge is going to be necessary especially once the operation gets busier. But the vehicles use the nearby substantial Gridserve all electric service station situated on the A131 south east of Braintree which has fast charging infrastructure as a model for future roadside facilities of this kind.
Essex are using its already established Moovit run ‘Travel Essex’ app which offers information and journey planning about all travel modes across the county and through which you book a ride with DigiGo rather than a bespoke app as most schemes use.
The odd thing I found about that is if you put in a journey from say the Chelmer Valley Park & Ride site near Little Waltham (situated to the north of Chelmsford) and give your destination as Good Easter it will come up with convoluted options using conventional bus routes and list them first – even including an option involving a five mile walk taking an estimated hour and 42 minutes in an overall journey time of 2 hours and 36 minutes. Oddly the 19 minute journey using DigiGo is listed further down the pecking order.
I came across the same problem when using the ‘ready2go’ scheme in Aberdeenshire which I guess also uses the Moovit software.
I can appreciate where traditional bus routes are available it makes sense to ‘nudge’ (or indeed compel) passengers to use them rather than DRT to make sure DRT is complimentary to the bus network but where DRT is the only realistic option, which for Good Easter it certainly is, then this should be listed prominently at the top. After all we should be doing everything to encourage take up of rural DRT which is what the Rural Mobility Fund is all about.
DigiGo really is a rural DRT – the Central Essex area covered pointedly doesn’t include Chelmsford itself and the South Braintree scheme only picks up/sets down at Braintree railway station or bus station as shown on the map above.
For Central Essex the idea is to bring people from their isolated villages and hamlets to the aforementioned Chelmer Valley Park & Ride site for onward travel into Chelmsford on the route 702 Park & Ride service.
Coincidentally the contract for this service has just recently changed hands with Vectare (yes, those young entrepreneurs are expanding again) taking over from First Essex. Vectare are waiting for their new fleet to arrive and in the meantime are operating some white liveried dealer stock on a temporary basis.
I’ve promised the guys at Vectare I’ll give their new buses a road test once they arrive and are in service in a few weeks time so I’ll report on this at a later date.
I ordered my DigiGo ride from the Park & Ride site over to Good Easter on Monday evening for a journey at 10:45 on Tuesday morning. And just to be sure ordered a return journey at 11:45 – I’m not going to get caught out with finding no mobile phone signal at my destination again!
The booking was straight forward (with reassuring confirmatory texts received) although I was a bit surprised at the price quoted on the app – £8 for the single journey – which admittedly would be cheaper than a taxi and frankly is much more realistic than other DRT schemes have been charging, with crazy low prices.
Booking for the first time required me to enter credit card details to set up an account (unlike ‘Felxibus+’ in Swaffham, drivers on DigiGo don’t handle transactions – it’s all done through the app) and only after that could I enter my concessionary pass details to qualify for free travel – which seemed a bit odd – but it was later explained to me that if I’d booked a journey before 09:30 on a weekday then the concessionary pass wouldn’t be valid, which is fair enough.
As I headed over to Chelmsford on Tuesday morning I noticed I’d received a text at 08:41 telling me my “ride is waiting for” me which was a bit disconcerting especially as when I replied it was obviously not a text number able to receive incoming messages.
I crossed my fingers and hoped it was a technical teething glitch.
I arrived in good time at the Park & Ride site and spotted the DigiGo bus already on site waiting which was when I met Lynne who was my designated driver for both journeys.
Lynne showed me around the eight seater vehicle including the tail lift for passengers using a wheelchair – apparently two of the fleet are so equipped with this layout for wheelchairs with the other four having more seats in the flexible configuration.
For more able bodied passengers there’s a manually operated door and a retractable step to help you board the vehicle. It was fairly easy to get on board and off again for me, once I’d remembered to duck my head so as not to hit it on the roof.
Lynne is a brilliant ambassador for DigiGo with a delightful personality as well as being a superb driver along the narrow rural Essex lanes we travelled along to and from Good Easter. You really notice how you’re gliding so silently and smoothly along the road in the LDV.
We arrived in Good Easter after a 19 minute journey time exactly as the app had predicted and while Lynne went off to have her lunch break I explored the village.
It’s a lovely village-come-hamlet with no pub or shop (that I could find) but a nice church and plenty of attractive looking houses.
I came across a bus shelter in the centre of the village which has been repurposed as a Bus-Book-&-Information-Stop.
As well as library books and games, among the wealth of information on display were minutes of a recent Parish Council meeting (on 31st March) but interestingly no mention of DigiGo coming to the village. An opportunity for some promotion and awareness there.
Also included is a bus timetable for the one journey a day shopper bus into Chelmsford at 09:38 on TThFS.
My forty minute wander around Good Easter soon passed and it wasn’t long before Lynne returned and we headed back to Chelmer Valley Park & Ride.
Another 19 minute ride and we were soon back at the Park & Ride site.
Interestingly when Lynne dropped me off on arriving earlier into Good Easter at 11:05 I received another misleading text telling me my “minibus will arrive in 2 minutes” and it seems there’s some kind of glitch in the software which sends an alert to the next passenger as soon as the previous journey has been completed if it’s from the same location – hence why I received the other earlier text when Lynne had completed a journey to Chelmer Valley at 08:41.
Another anomaly was on entering Good Easter as my desired destination into the app it defaulted to specifying this as 1 Imbards Cottages – a random address on the south edge of the hamlet – rather than the village centre by the aforementioned bus shelter and the rather nice village sign.
I understand this is to do with how Google maps and geo-fencing works and of course residents would almost certainly enter their postcode or full address and the software would show the nearest “virtual” bus stop. As a visitor all I could do was put the name of the village itself, although there is an option to use the map to specify the setting down/pick up point but I find my fat fingers don’t always get that right either.
These are all minor teething issues which I’m sure James Hopkins and his colleagues at Essex County Council will soon resolve. James is the County Council’s Transport Business Development Manager and got in touch with me a couple of weeks ago and kindly invited me over to try out the new service and emphasising how keen he was to hear my feedback as a user which is always an encouraging and impressive sign.
We had a good chat yesterday morning and I passed all the points mentioned in this blog to him and he was very eager to take note of them all and see what can be done to ensure they are dealt with. Plans for promoting the new scheme including a roadshow are in hand and I have to say this attitude was so encouraging to witness. It made my visit and report back feel worthwhile so a big thanks to James and to Lynne.
The challenge facing DigiGo (and many other rural DRT schemes being set up with the DfT’s funding) is villagers and hamlet dwellers are inevitably long established car dependent residents and it’s going to take a major shift to change habits, especially if it involves taking a change of bus to reach their destination (at the Park & Ride site). There’s always a sense of anxiety whether connections will work especially in the homeward direction but I can see the logic of not tying up more time and miles by sending the Central Essex minibuses into Chelmsford, especially with such a large rural area to cover.
As I found in Swaffham on Monday, these villages and hamlets have never had the opportunity to enjoy public transport provision now presented to them with these trial DRT schemes. Indeed my former colleague at Brighton & Hove, Tony Holden, also now retired, commented on my Swaffham blog that “even in the heyday of buses (1965) Cockley Cley only had 3 buses a week”.
So there’s a golden opportunity now for people to make the switch and leave their expensive-to-run cars in the drive and summon up a rural minibus for their journey. With a daily service through until 22:00 young people will be able to go out in the evenings without the need to call on the Mum & Dad Taxi Company while concessionary passholders have a free to use taxi service as they need. The DfT funding for DigiGo is only for two years so it’s going to be a tough call to change habits and generate enough custom in that time and for Essex’s politicians to find the balance of subsidy it will surely need when that ends.
But with the positivity and dedication James conveyed to me and the wonderful service and welcome provided by Lynne, DigiGo is certainly in good hands and deserves to succeed to reward that commitment. Sadly, bearing in mind all the issues relating to DRT discussed in these blogs over the last few years, not least the significant financial commitment needed, and the logistics of serving a large sparsely populated area I doubt I’ll be able to make a return trip to celebrate Easter after 2024.
I hope readers have a Good Easter. I did.
PS There are still many of the 17 DRT schemes being funded by the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund yet to commence. If readers hear news of their introduction, do let me know – in Buckinghamshire, Cheshire West & Chester, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Wiltshire.
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